Matt Mullenweg: Collaboration Is Key (#100) | The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish

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Key Takeaways

  • “Open-source is a hack that gets competitors to work together” Matt Mullenweg 
    • Humans outcompeted all other animals because they could collaborate
    • That’s why in the long run, open-source software will win every market that’s in
  • With open-source software, you get the opposite of the tragedy of the commons
    • Each person working in his self-interest makes the thing better
  • Working together in person gets people closer, in a way that you can’t replicate online
    • Knowing that this is an issue you have to actively invest to improve relationships with co-workers
    • Automattic’s “Secret Sauce” is to get people to get together in-person 3-4 times annually
  • “Make reversible decisions quickly and irreversible ones deliberately” Tony Schneider (early business partner)
    • If it’s a reversible one you’ll learn a lot more by doing it, rather than debating it for weeks
  • Matt never wanted Automattic to take over the market for WordPress paid services
    • You have to capture enough, but always less than the value you create for others
  • “It’s very difficult to drive World-changing performance if it’s just for a paycheck, or just for your personal benefit, you need to be connected to something larger” Matt Mullenweg

Key Products Mentioned

Intro

  • Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) is the co-founder of WordPress, the open platform that runs most websites, and the CEO of Automattic
  • Host: Shane Parrish (@ShaneAParrish)
  • In this chat, Matt discusses his philosophy about open-source software, company organization, collective decision-making, and much more

WordPress’ Success

  • At the start, WordPress’ competitors were better positioned to take over the internet
    • They were better funded, had more talent, etc…
  • Matt ascribes WordPress’ success to
    • Creating a community
      • People loved working on it
    • Adaptability
      • WordPress could be customized for every use
    • Strong company philosophy
      • Open-source
      • To Matt, the open-source philosophy is the most important idea that he has been exposed to

Open-source Philosophy

  • “Open-source is like software with a bill of rights attached” Matt Mullenweg
    • The bill of rights ensures certain freedoms
  • Open-source Software has four freedoms attached
    • Freedom to use the software for any purpose
    • Freedom to see how the software works (look under the hood)
    • Freedom to modify the software
    • Freedom to distribute those changes
      • This makes open-source software win in the long run
      • Different versions will be available and the best ones will survive
  • What makes people want to work on open-source projects?
    • Part of the other freedoms involved is the freedom to sell it or commercialize it
      • You could take WordPress and sell it
      • Companies like Bluehost and GoDaddy do this
  • There are different business models that can be used with open-source software
    • If you put your best features into a paid software, the open-source, free one is likely to die
    • WordPress’ approach is to put its best features in a core, free offering
      • Then they create paid services around it (example of Akismet)
  • “Open-source is a hack that gets competitors to work together” Matt Mullenweg 
    • Humans outcompeted all other animals because they were able to collaborate
    • That’s why in the long run, open-source software will win every market that’s in
  • With open-source software, you get the opposite of the tragedy of the commons
    • Each person working in his self-interest makes the thing better

Automattic’s Philosophy to Capture Value

  • Automattic is a for-profit company created to build on and flourish from the open web
    • Matt’s idea was to pair his non-profit (WordPress.org) with a for-profit company in a way that strengthened both companies
    • Automattic creates paid services for WordPress.org
      • WooCommerce
      • WordPress.com
  • Matt never wanted Automattic to take over the market for WordPress paid services
  • He wanted to maintain a thriving ecosystem of strong companies creating services for WordPress
    • If you’re capturing more value than you create, you’ll inevitably die
    • If you’re not capturing enough value you’ll inevitably die
    • You have to capture enough, but always less than the value you create for others
  • Matt was inspired in this idea by Microsoft, which stated that for every dollar they make, $20 are made by the Microsoft ecosystem
    • He saw that all successful ecosystems had this ratio of $1 made for every $20 created
      • He considers Facebook as a “fake platform”, as Facebook makes 90% of the revenues in its ecosystem

Environment, Performance

  • Your environment is the most important thing affecting how you work
    • The smells, music, light, everything contributes to your mental state while you work
  • WordPress pays a lot of attention to the environment it creates
  • The best framework Matt found on improving performance is from Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
    • Mastery: Getting good at what you do by being challenged
    • Autonomy: Freedom to be able to do what you think is right
    • Purpose: Working for something bigger than yourself
      • “It’s very difficult to drive World-changing performance if it’s just for a paycheck, or just for your personal benefit, you need to be connected to something larger” Matt Mullenweg

Words Create Reality: Remote vs Distributed

  • Matt is aware of the strong power of the words we use in our reality
    • The way you name initially is really important
    • Changing names after that is really difficult
  • Automattic is a remote company, but Matt doesn’t call it “remote”, he calls it “distributed”
    • Remote implies that you are far from the center
      • A “remote town” is isolated, far away
  • Matt’s idea is to create an antifragile, fully distributed organization
    • Each node in the network has equal weight to others
    • The system becomes more resilient because each node is relatively independent but contributes to the whole
  • Automattic’s philosophy for its distributed team is to leave lots of freedom to its employees
  • Other benefits of distributed teams
    • It’s easier to slack off in an office than it is remotely
      • In offices there’s a lot more signaling, you can hide behind constant meetings, etc.
    • Offices are also very distracting
      • Humans are social animals and in-person they get caught up in social games that distract them from work

The Levels of Autonomous Organizations

  • The levels of how companies evolve to become fully distributed
  • Level 0: Jobs that absolutely can’t be done remotely (construction workers)
    • We are finding that many jobs that we thought to be Level 0 are not (telemedicine)
  • Level 1: You can get by not working in the office for emergencies
    • The company is not designed to allow distributed work
  • Level 2: You try to re-create everything you did in the office online
    • Most companies went to this level during the pandemic
      • Usually exhausting for employees
      • Too many online meetings
  • Level 3: When you start to embrace the benefits of being online
    • Example of using a common Google Doc to take notes during a meeting
      • Helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page
  • Level 4: Move from synchronous to asynchronous
    • People can work together without having to work at the same time
    • This unlocks major benefits
      • Access to global talent 
      • Give people far more flexibility
      • Better decision making (people have more time to think)
      • Empower introverted employees, who are less capable to bring their best ideas in meetings
  • Level 5: The somewhat unattainable goal to aspire to
    • When the distributed organization outperforms in-person organizations under every aspect (productivity, happiness, etc…)

Downsides to Distributed, Investing in Relationships

  • Matt really enjoys spending time with his colleagues
    • He wishes he could do that more
  • Working together in person gets people closer, in a way that you can’t replicate online
    • Knowing that this is an issue you have to actively invest to improve relationships with coworkers
      • When people invest in improving their relationship, the effects multiply on the company and product
    • Automattic’s “Secret Sauce” is to get people to get together in-person 3-4 times annually
  • Overworking is also often a problem in distributed teams
    • Automattic used to not track vacation time, but people weren’t taking enough
    • Now they started tracking it again to encourage employees to take more

Mental Models and Decision Making

  • “Make reversible decisions quickly and irreversible ones deliberately” Tony Schneider (early business partner)
    • If it’s a reversible one you’ll learn a lot more by doing it, rather than debating it for weeks
      • Speed of iteration in software is essential
    • You could argue that every decision is reversible, but some of them require really high costs to be reversed
    • Those are the decisions you should be more deliberate about
      • Who you choose to partner with, acquisitions, important hires
    • Some amount of editing will inevitably improve your writing
      • Similarly, important decisions can be improved by approaching them more deliberately
  • In organizations, everyone should be able to challenge other’s ideas
  • Books that influenced Matt Mullenweg’s thinking on mental models
  • Matt avoids being too prescriptive
    • He hopes he can find better ways to do things with time
    • He thinks Shane should interview people at different points in time to see how their ideas changed

Distributed Decision Making

  • Instead of making decisions in a meeting, at Automattic they create written threads for people to share their ideas and thoughts
    • These threads become like a decision journal, allowing to identify flaws in their thinking and processes
    • This can sometimes spiral out of control, but overall it works well for them
  • Automattic took direct steps to optimize this process
    • They hire people who can write clearly and succinctly
      • Clear writing represents clear thinking
    • If a thread is too long, someone will summarize it to help everyone catch up
      • Matt thinks a lot about time efficiency
  • Automattic has 80% fewer meetings than most companies
    • This makes it very easy to arrange an important meeting when there is an emergency

Automattic’s Org Structure

  • Automattic today has 13,000 employees
  • Matt designed the organizational structure to be fractal
    • As you zoom in or out, the structure looks similar
    • As teams grow, they split into two and starts coordinating
  • The hardest growth phase was going from 20 to 50
    • In this phase, you lose the ability to “force” collaboration
    • You need to have a good process to onboard new people effectively
    • The company experienced a lot of internal issues among employees
  • Early on Matt was influenced by Basecamp’s philosophy to keep the company small
    • He used to think that larger organizations would necessarily be worse
      • That caused people to be overworked for some time
    • Today he sees that as a limiting belief
      • Why can’t the company get better if you bring in more great people?

What Matt Learned Working with a Coach

  • He found subtle, but powerful ways to improve his communication
    • Instead of asking “Is there anything I can do to help you”?
    • He now asks “What do you need for this to be a success?”
    • The first question implicitly gives power to Matt, the second empowers the other
  • He started listening more to his body, with awareness
    • In the past, he used to try to only rationalize and solve problems intellectually
      • We’re often taught to suppress negative emotions, but this makes them come back
    • Identifying and allowing negative feelings allows them to go away instead of affecting you
      • This affects the relationships you have and your decision-making
    • Feeling emotions also allows access to some “unverbalizable” wisdom in the body

Additional Notes

  • Matt divides his time into three buckets
    • Taking care of people
    • Taking care of the product
    • Extra time to deal with emergencies that arise
Knowledge Project : , ,
Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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